In early 2002, I received a large manila envelope in the mail from an address in Friday Harbor, Washington. It contained a booklet I’d ordered for my fledgling online knitting magazine, Knitter’s Review. The booklet had a glossy cover and an enticing title: Socks Soar on Two Circular Needles: A Manual of Elegant Knitting Techniques and Patterns. The book was written by a woman named Cat Bordi—the “h” would come later.
At a time when self-publishing in the knitting world meant black-and-white photocopies with clumsy plastic Wire-O bindings, I was taken by her 44 pages of elegant text, crisp layout, and clear photos. The patterns were lovely, but it was her voice that won me over—a reassuring, playful tone reminiscent of Elizabeth Zimmermann. She’d interrupt herself mid-toe to suggest you make yourself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch (“they’re cheap, and you’re investing in needles, right?”). Mid-heel flap, she’d congratulate you on cutting a weavable tail, “even before I reminded you, because you are so smart.”
In 2002, much of the Internet was still in its infancy. Knitters were heavy early adopters, being far-flung and eager for a point of convergence.
The democratic nature of the Internet made it possible for someone like Cat to sidestep the entire knitting publishing machine—which was small, highly controlled, and nearly impossible to penetrate—and bring her message, in her own words, directly to knitters.
I reviewed her book and Socks Soar promptly, well, soared all the way to number 64 on Amazon—and I mean on all of Amazon, above John Grisham. My newsletter had about 10,000 subscribers at that time, and they were famished for the likes of what Cat was offering. Here was a fresh new voice telling us we could actually knit socks not on those fiddly sticks but with the streamlined elegance of a circular needle. It had the same effect on sock knitters as the commercial bread slicer did on the baking industry.
Cat was thrilled but mystified as to the source of her newfound success. Her brother did some sleuthing and found my review. She wrote me an email, and we became lifelong friends.
Cat was first and foremost a teacher.
An explainer of things. As soon as she figured something out, she needed to teach it to others. So naturally, having worked out a clever way to knit socks on two circular needles, she had to spread the news far and wide. What better way than to write a book.
Not long after Socks Soar, as she tells it, she jumped out of bed one night and realized exactly how you could cast on for a knitted Mobius strip. This was her next passion, which she explored in two perfect-bound, full-color books, A Treasury of Magical Knitting and A Second Treasury of Magical Knitting. (She found it hard to stop at just one of anything.)
When Cat returned to socks for her New Pathways for Sock Knitters (book one) and Personal Footprints for Insouciant Knitters (book two, again, why stop at one), she created entirely new ways to knit socks. Until then, they had been knit from the top down or the toe up. So Cat had to see what would happen if you started your sock from other points, like the bottom of the foot. Just to prove it could be done. It could, beautifully.
As fiercely independent as she was about her books, she was happy to surrender to others when it came to getting a ride or a place to stay. Such minutiae just slowed her down. When I expressed concern, she’d look at me with those clear, sincere eyes, and say some version of, “I don’t have to worry, because everything always works out.”
And it did.
She had this magical ability to speak things into existence.
Cat had parlayed her self-publishing success into a fulltime career as a knitwear designer, author, and teacher—earning more than she had as a public school teacher. Excepting perhaps Elizabeth Zimmermann, such independent economic success was unthinkable.
Cat worked hard, spending months at a time on the road, traveling from shop to festival, back to shop, to retreat, to another festival. At one point, she was fully booked three years in advance. But she loved this new world.
She broke the mold of what was professionally and economically possible in knitting, setting the stage for the independent knitwear design world we have now.
Having solved the puzzle of how to successfully self-publish a book, she needed to teach others how to do it too. She created a Visionary Retreat. Over the years, it fostered a steady stream of voices including Chrissy Gardiner, Janel Laidman, Nancy Marchand, Chris de Longpré, Margaret Fisher, Sandra McIver, Carson Demers, Janine Bajus, and JC Briar.
I marveled at how comfortably she gave away all her secrets—her pricing formulas, her printer, even her graphic designer. She did the same with most of the ideas she hatched, always happy to let someone else do the heavy lifting of bringing it to fruition. She had no fear of being copied or scooped by someone else because she knew more ideas would always come. And they always did.
Whenever we happened to be teaching or attending an event together, which was the case for more than a decade, I got to witness Cat’s magic in person. And that was fun.
She could enchant total strangers in seconds. I’d turn my back and she’d be swapping spoons with a random man in line at Jeni’s Ice Cream in Columbus. Or convincing a woman at the next table that she simply had to try the mango pudding. When that woman tried to pivot the conversation to a Mary Kay Cosmetics sales pitch, Cat magically boomeranged the entire interaction to the point where the woman not only had a bowl of mango pudding on her table before we left, but she’d also written down the names of all the knitting books she should buy.
And then there were the hotel rooms. Without fail, I’d find myself in a closet overlooking an air shaft or a dumpster or some other creepy mob hit site. Meanwhile, Cat—the person least interested in luxury or prestige—would be handed the keys to a penthouse suite. “It’s so huge!” she’d say when I’d ask about her room. “I have a jacuzzi! And a balcony! You’ll have to come up and see it!” When I’d press her about how she got the room, she’d say some version of, “I don’t know, I just asked for a quiet room and they gave this to me.”
That was life with Cat.
To the hardened or cynical heart, it was easy to raise an eyebrow at Cat’s childish wonder and exuberance. But over time, you’d realize that it was far more fun to surrender to her orbit. Any time spent with Cat was an adventure. An escapade. A caper.
During the first Sock Summit—another grand idea whose inception Cat had been in on—she discovered that she and Lucy Neatby were wearing the same size shoes but in different colors. Naturally, they swapped, and for years Cat and Lucy explored the world with one blue shoe and one green one.
Cat eschewed authority of any kind. Her GPS, nicknamed Persnickety Mapsalot, was constantly forced to recalculate its course. “Twice today after I incited her to school-marm me,” Cat wrote me once, “she waited a moment and then added with false cheeriness, ‘There is a better alternative route,’ and then ignored me. As if she knows a better route! Hah! If she thinks I will fall for that, she has a lot to learn. I think we need a therapist.”
Cat likewise challenged those around her to consider recalculating their courses. She willingly served as a guide and mentor to all who needed it, which may explain why so many were drawn to her. She had an uncanny ability to see deep into your soul and speak to your highest self. It could just be the words, “You’re ready,” or “Are you sure?” But nine times out of ten, they’d be exactly what you needed to hear.
Hers was a deep and infectious spirituality that defied labels.
Her Island Knitting Retreats kept filling with loyal attendees, year after year, even as new knitting waves crested. If she noticed the changing times, she wasn’t at all bothered by it. Knitting had become the framework through which she did deeper work. Her gatherings had become spiritual retreats.
Although she had long since given up her storage unit full of books to host her retreats and lead global escapades, Cat still found time to publish new work digitally. There was her Sweet Tomato Heel Socks, her collection of fingerless mitts, her Versatildes and Felfs (Cat so loved wordplay), and, just weeks before her death, she released a collection of patterns called MoMo Cowls.
Cat’s life—like any good cat, come to think of it—had multiple incarnations that not everyone knew about. Open up your copy of Eckhard Tolle’s The Power of Now and you’ll find him thanking her for her support of the work in its early stages. While a single mother with a baby at home, she carved out a profitable niche making teddy bears, each of which was named and numbered and came with a handwritten origin story. (Google “Catherine Bordi bears” and prepare to be amazed.) Cat spoke Russian, was an expert seamstress, and wrote an award-winning young adult novel called Treasure Forest—the first in a never-completed Forest Inside trilogy.
Then came the cancer. She’d encountered it more than 25 years ago. Twice, in fact. It ran in her family. She didn’t view it as a nemesis, but more like an innocent entity that meant no harm. She credited her earlier recoveries to this attitude. So when it was determined a year ago that there was cancer once again in her body, she approached what she called “this most interesting situation” with a full heart. But she also understood that she was older now, and that it might be different.
This summer, the cancer stopped responding to treatment and she decided to enter hospice. She shared the news publicly and offered people a special email address to which they could write. Ever the teacher, she wanted to give us all a proper lesson in how to say goodbye.
“The most fabulous and curious thing,” she told me about her inbox, “is that I am getting emails from all over the world, about 500 at this point. Amongst them are emails from people with whom I’ve had some small misunderstanding in years past, such that it felt like we had pebbles in our shoes…and each of these people have now returned to me fully clean and fresh; they may not even know we had a pebble, but the result is that there is clearing happening constantly even without my nudging it along! Being washed clean for free. I highly recommend dying for purposes of having a deep bath. So funny.”
Later, I heard from Cat again. “The weird thing,” she wrote, “is that I am afraid that I might have a miracle healing and then it will be so embarrassing to have tricked everyone, including myself. Because if this is what dying is like, it is entirely sweet.” She was no fool. “I’m being careful not to attach to any particular outcome or experience, and know that it is likely to be a rollercoaster. Best to ride with a rollercoaster than against it!”
And that’s precisely how I see her early the morning of September 19, 2020, as she took her last breath and, in the words of her beloved daughter Jenny, “experienced a gentle death she felt ready for and at peace about.”
The fact that she should do so within a day of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg taking her last breath gives me a glimmer of hope. It would be just like Cat to have been put next to RBG on the shuttle to the Great Beyond (“I don’t know! I just asked for a comfortable seat!”).
I’m sure they’ve become fast friends by now and are hatching a plan for us all.